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India Football Asian Games

Asian Soccer / May 3, 2019

Cyril Radcliffe was a civil servant who was little known outside British bureaucratic circles before 1947. However, the events which transpired in August of the same year would etch his name into eternity. On 17 August 1947, details about the Radcliffe Line were published, dividing 450, 000 square kilometres to partition India and Pakistan. Chaos and civil disorder ensued, resulting in millions of deaths and the largest mass migration in history.

The scars remain bloody. India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars and continue to have a relationship which perennially rests on a razor’s edge. Needless to say, this national enmity seeps into the field of sports. Both multiple Olympic gold medal and World Cup winners, India and Pakistan’s hockey teams have a rich history of rivalry while one of cricket’s great battle royale also involves the two nations.

Yet there are those unique examples of bitterness taking a back seat. One such famous instance came on 4 September 1962, at Jakarta’s Senayan stadium. As the Indian team lined up against South Korea for the Asian Games final in front of an overtly partisan crowd baying for their opponents, support from stands came from an unlikely quarter: the Pakistan hockey team. Ironically, they had defeated India to win gold a day before and promptly came down to support the Indian football team. This was just one of many incredible facets of India’s greatest triumph in the beautiful game, a story worthy of a Bollywood script.

India’s success in 1962 was not a one off but had its seeds sown in 1948 when the newly independent country participated in the London Olympics. The bare feet Indians’ creditable performance against France – when they missed two penalties to lose 2-1 – earned rave reviews during the Games. Several reasons led to India refusing to participate in 1950 World Cup but they were still one of the best teams in Asia. This fact was established in 1951 when India won their first major title in inaugural Asian Games. Playing in front of a crowd which contained the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, India sneaked past Iran thanks to a goal from ace striker Sheoo Mewalal to secure the gold medal.

A transition period in terms of both tactics and personnel followed and would last until the mid-1950s. With a new-look team and mirroring the Hungarian strategy of a withdrawn centre-forward, India famously defeated Australia 4-2 in 1956 Olympics. Powered by a hat-trick from the stylish Neville D’Souza, India became the first Asian country to reach an Olympic semi-final. The 1960 Rome Olympics brought further cheer as they performed out of their skins against Hungary and France. If India wanted to recapture the gold they won in 1951, the 1962 Asian Games was their best chance. For this was the greatest Indian team of all.

Between the sticks, India had the gentle giant Peter Thangaraj, voted as the best goalkeeper in Asia in 1958. Standing over six feet, Thangaraj was a commanding shot-stopper and his added weapon was a long and flat throw which would often start attacks. The defence was marshalled by the powerful Jarnail Singh, arguably India’s most consistent performer in international matches. Singh was an intimidating and fearless defender whose man-marking on Hungarian legend Florian Albert in had won rave reviews. He was beautifully complimented by Arun Ghosh, a calm and technically sound tackler blessed with supreme distribution skills.

In midfield, ‘the bearded horse’, Yusuf Khan, was a versatile footballer who could effortlessly slot into multiple positions. Franco Fortunato was a fierce competitor and performed the bulk of the defensive duties in midfield. Ram Bahadur Chhetri was an all-action midfielder whose superb passing range was vital to India’s offensive build-ups.

India had a solid defence, an effective midfield and a highly-talented reserve bench which spawned the likes of Prasanta Sinha and Prodyut Burman, who would play invaluable roles. The squad depth ensured a fierce competition for starting places, as Arun Ghosh confirmed in a 2013 interview: “Such was the level of competition that we had to make sure that we played to our full potential otherwise we could have lost our places in the team.” The greatest strength, however, lay in a star-studded attacking line-up, led by three of the greatest players to ever come out of the sub-continent.

Tulsidas Balaram played as one of the inside forwards and was the most tactically intelligent player of his team. An expert in setting up goals, Balaram’s off the ball movement made him an extremely difficult player to mark. Pradip Kumar “PK” Banerjee had a sudden burst of pace and could shoot lethally with both feet. He would end his career as India’s all-time top scorer, a record he held until the 1980s. Despite their incredible talent, neither player had the fame and popularity of the third musketeer: Chuni Goswami. Possibly the most skilful Indian footballer of all-time, Goswami was a master dribbler and a prolific scorer – his record of 145 goals in regional Kolkata Football League will likely never be broken. During his best years, Goswami even got an offer from Tottenham Hotspur for a trial, which he declined.

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Read | Mohun Bagan and the fight for Indian independence

The only thing missing in this team was a clinical centre-forward like D’Souza or Mewalal, a flaw which would be ironed out ingeniously during the tournament.

The most important man, though, sat on the bench. Syed Abdul Rahim managed the national team for long periods in the 1950s and ’60s and, with a 61.9 percent win rate coupled with half a dozen trophies, was largely responsible for India’s dominance in that era. A great admirer of the Hungarian team of early-1950s, whom he had watched during 1952 Olympics, Rahim Saab, as he was fondly called, was the architect of most of the early tactical changes in Indian football. He was revered by his players and had assembled this team bit by painstaking bit after a lengthy preparatory camp.

The camp took place in Hyderabad where 25 of India’s best footballers lounged in a utilitarian police quarter, sharing a dormitory with two toilets and a common kitchen. Spending two months in such a Spartan setting forged an unshakeable team spirit among the players. In sharp contrast to contemporary Indian coaches, Rahim focused more on tactical training instead of endless physical drills. This ensured that his team was able to seamlessly transition from a 4-2-4 to a 3-3-4 based on the situation. A news clipping from the Indian Express of one of the trial matches that took place as part of the camp gives a fair impression of the team’s tactical approach: “The coach SA Rahim (Andhra) showed keen interest in the Brazilian system of play wherein four forwards always remain in attacking zone, two half-backs in the interception area while four defenders man the deep defence.”

The final team list of 16 players had a potent mix of youth and experience, with some players having already played in Olympics and Asian Games. Chuni Goswami was selected as captain as India left for Jakarta on 15 August 1962, as the nation celebrated its’ independence day.